Tips to Communicate Change Effectively to Staff

Like many internal communications, you may find that communicating change is a very demanding part of your role. In today’s environment, change is a fact of life. Companies, resistant to change, risk losing their competitive edge.

The process of change is complex. As human beings we often feel threatened by change. But the irony is that without change we might still all be living in caves. We have to admit that change can be exciting as well as challenging as it stimulates innovation and creativity. Good for business and good for us. The question is, “Is it possible to assist in managing change without all the drama?”

Before engaging in communicating change, it is important to understand the psychology of change and your role in the change process. Change needs to be effectively managed and communicated so that it is embraced rather than rejected.

One of the more sensitive areas to manage is your senior management team. They may be driving the change initiative, but may not be so good at communicating ideas in a way that is accessible to all staff. They may not even have a framework for managing the change process. Part of your job is likely to be supporting your key stakeholders and making it easy for them to communicate effectively to staff at all levels.

How can I communicate change and minimise negative aspects of the change process?

There are change management methodologies, which have proven to be successful when implementing changes. These provide a framework for managing the change and change communications process. Select processes that suit you and your company’s culture and that are appropriate to the type of change you wish to implement.

When researching change management, it doesn’t take long to learn about trust. It takes time to win employee trust, which is the foundation of an employee’s commitment to the business. It takes time to build it but only moments to destroy it. Signs that trust has been eroded include lower productivity, poor morale, resistance to change, a strong rumor mill and good staff leaving. A good change management process with effective, honest internal communications can avoid all this and make implementing changes an exciting and rewarding challenge.

Understand the psychology of change

Don’t let the change curve become a roller coaster – Change is a complex issue. Many of us do not embrace the need for change, especially when things appear to be moving along just fine. We are firmly ensconced in our comfort zone and have a sense of wellbeing. In the business world, however, senior management needs to be at least one step ahead in order to maintain their organization’s competitive edge. Senior management may read ‘comfort zone’ as ‘stagnation’ and immediately start planning to innovate and improve.

Prior to announcing any change, someone has obviously thought about the current situation, analyzed solutions, and come up with a plan. This takes time. This plan is then often rolled out to the employees. Being suddenly confronted with a change plan, and feeling left out of the loop, makes many employees feel anxious.

During times of organizational change, employees can become less productive and question their job security. Their response to change is often emotionally charged and if change is not managed and communicated effectively the chances of success reduce significantly.

‘The Change Curve’ graphically describes the psychology of change. It lists stages that employees typically move through during a change initiative. These stages range from Satisfaction (I am happy as I am) through Denial (This isn’t relevant to my work), Resistance (I’m not having this), Exploration (Could this work for me?), Hope (I can see how I can make this work for me), right through to Commitment (This works for me and my colleagues). We mustn’t overlook the fact that when there are significant changes, people may need time to grieve for any perceived or real losses.

To communicate effectively, it is vital to recognize your employees’ mindset at any stage of the process, so that you can support them, validate their feelings and move them through to the commitment stage.

Typically at the start of any change initiative employees experience:

o Fear; e.g. of job loss or of increased responsibilities

o Frustration; e.g. with the process or with lack of information, or even

o Acceptance; e.g. they recognize that change is needed or inevitable.

Understanding the needs of your key stakeholder groups and where they are along the continuum of the change curve enables you to hone your communications plan. Selecting a framework with an iterative approach, allows you to make subtle (or not so subtle changes) so your role in the change process is as effective as possible.

Think strategically and clarify your messages

Why are we changing?

Even when you have the trust of your employees, they won’t get alongside and make changes unless you provide a compelling and logical reason to change. Your strategy should be to motivate staff through inspiration, not desperation.

Having a structured process is only part of your strategic planning. An iterative process that allows you to make continual improvements depending on the feedback you receive is an excellent approach. Acting on feedback demonstrates that you are not only listening to your employees but taking note of them too. This can be a powerful way of engaging staff and moving them through to the Exploration stage of the Change Curve.

Part of a successful change management process must include communicating strategically. This includes ensuring that your management team communicate effectively. A strategic move might be to measure how effective managers are at communicating key messages and to provide some training for those who perform poorly. Roger D’Aprix comments that as soon as some leaders meet resistance they either ignore it or want to squash it. He suggests a more strategic approach; one that embraces engagement through:

o Trust

o Compelling logic

o A match of actions and words

o Involvement of those who are affected

o Communicating a sense of confidence and minimizing fear

o Repetition of the primary themes.

Think about these building blocks when you are crafting key messages to support the change process.

To build on trust, you need to be honest. Miss the chance to make a compelling case for change, and you will find that employees will concoct their own, usually less flattering, reasons for change. Don’t assume that the negative people will necessarily sabotage your project. They will if you let them, but it is your job to win them over. Converts can become your greatest allies.

‘Walk the talk’, since actions speak louder than words. Engage those who are directly affected. You may not like some of the messages you hear, especially during the Denial and Resistance stages. However, acknowledging people’s fears is one way of minimizing anxiety, especially if you work in an environment of trust and honesty.

Your messages need to accentuate the positive and eliminate (or at last minimize) the negative. Repetition is a powerful tool. People only hear the message when they are ready to hear it. Those of us who are constantly bombarded with information have got really good at screening out noise. So, repeat your key messages until everyone gets it.

Customize and target messages to each your key stakeholder groups. Don’t forget to massage your messages to take into account staff mindset at each stage of the project.

Make sure you see the project through to the end. If this means giving extra support to some groups, or providing additional training, do it. The behaviors need to become embedded.

Sun Microsystems’ ‘Knowledge, Attitude, Action’ model provides a tactical approach based on moving staff from an existing position to a desired one. For example, seek to move:

o Current employee knowledge from ‘I don’t know our strategy’ to ‘I know where we are going’

o Current employee attitude from ‘I’m scared I’ll lose my job’ to ‘I’m excited about my future’

o Current employee action from ‘I just do what I’m told’ to ‘I proactively shape my work to help the company meet its goals.’

Clear, positive messages give a clear and positive direction.

If you do not have a strategic plan, staff may feel demotivated and suspicious. You could spend a lot of time and money on communications, but still find staff uncommunicative or feeding the rumor mill. Think strategically and craft clear messages and make your communications work for you.


Do staff need to offload and should you let them?

Many change management projects get stuck right into telling staff what changes to make and then start filling them in on all details. This type of insensitive approach can cause employees to feel shocked and ambushed. And this initial shock is often followed by behaviors such as denial, anger, ‘blocking’ and in some cases depression.

Staff need time to come to grips with what the change means to them before they can move on. Since these emotions are an expected part of the change curve, it is wise to provide some avenues whereby staff can have their say. Staff who perceive that they may lose their job, or be relocated, or redeployed need to voice their concerns. Listening to and acknowledging their views will assist them and you.

Part of your role, therefore, is to find ways of listening and listening proactively. You need to create opportunities to hear what people are thinking after any changes are announced. You can use a variety of approaches such as team meetings, interviews, or open forums. It is important not just to gather feedback but to probe deeper so that you really understand the issues and understand how these issues affect each individual. Communication should be a two-way street.

Staff may be exploring their feelings as well as their options, so making comments beginning with ‘but’ or trying to answer their questions does not help them or you to clarify the issues. So listen first and try to get to the heart of the matter and acknowledge what they feel.

Sometimes staff just need a place to let off steam. If you do not listen to staff and allow their feelings and ideas to be heard, then rumor and resentment can grow. Even if you have to communicate bad news, you can manage the process with dignity. Active and empathetic listening is paramount in this process.

Use face to face meetings for sensitive issues, and allow plenty of time to hear responses and to answer questions. If you need to comment, keep your message brief and clear.

Staff may think of additional questions or wish to make further comments once they have had time to assimilate your information. Time may not permit you or other managers to have continual face to face meetings, so you may need to think of other ways to ‘listen.’

Get engagement

I’ll just keep my head down and get on with my job?

Management should not to ignore the people side of change management. According to a Harvard Business Review study, 70 percent of change initiatives are not successful because organizations fail to manage the human reaction to change.

Engagement begins at the top and applies to all levels of management. Research shows that employees tend to trust, and would rather communicate with, their immediate manager or supervisor. The implication is that this level of management plays a vital role in communicating and implementing change. Getting all levels of your management team involved in the planning and shaping of communications will make them better project champions.

Engagement is not just for the management team, it is for the staff too. Engagement takes time and patience. And you need to start at the beginning of the change process.

Steve Lemmex suggests a two part strategy. The first part involves managing resistance to change. Key strategies, at this stage, include being open, honest and giving people time to express their feelings and to come to grips with the implications of the change.

The second part involves being patient and ensuring staff are ready for the Exploration stage. This is when you involve staff by asking them to explore the ‘what, why, when and how’ things need to be done. This inclusive approach maximizes buy in and validates your staff skills. It encourages engagement. Involving people and letting them take ownership drives acceptance and commitment. In addition, staff often find innovative ways to make things work that managers would never have thought of.

Getting engagement often requires sensitivity, especially if there is bad news for some. Make the best of difficult situations, even if this means acknowledging what has not gone well. Where there is loss, (staff leaving or projects being abandoned) give staff time to grieve. Acknowledging loss gives closure and allows people to move on.

If you are working on a project that has experienced communications problems you may want to signal a radical change and commit to improving communications from this point forward. Once you are certain of support for really effective and open communication, why not formally bid farewell to the old way and welcome a new beginning with a celebration.

Tackle issues honestly and positively. Try to view circumstances dispassionately as emotions can cloud issues. As staff become actively engaged in improving their circumstances, they will feel empowered and positive.

Getting the right message to the right audience

So what’s this got to do with me?

People are really good at hearing what they want to hear and screening out messages that they either don’t want to hear, or are not ready to hear. This makes your role in internal communications a complex one, particularly in times of change. When significant changes are being planned, you not only need to understand each stakeholder group but you also need to take into account individuals and how they may react on a personal level to the changes. You have to get the message and the language right.

You will have clear messages that support the planned changes and assist in moving the project forward. However before communicating these messages, conduct a systematic audit of your audiences. Consider their needs, the way change may affect them and their current mindset. Then adapt your messages to ensure each group understands each message as you intend them to, so that subsequently, each person acts or thinks in the way you desire.

Repetition is important. You don’t want to bombard staff with information, but you do want to keep up momentum, and you do want staff to receive the right information at the right time. Consider using a variety of ways to send and receive information and messages. Use push and pull strategies. Some information will need to be pushed out to staff, whereas other information can just be there for when staff need it.

If you are the intermediary in some of the communications, make sure you respond in a timely manner to all interested parties.

Get the right people involved in communicating the change initiative. This sends a strong message to staff. Engaging people who have an in-depth understanding of the way your business runs, who are team players and who staff respect will make your communications tasks so much easier. They can smooth transitions, provide context for their teams, model the right behaviors and act as project champions for you. So when your staff ask, ‘What’s this got to do with me? Your team has all the answers.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Nobody told me

Human beings often screen out what they don’t want to hear, or what they are not ready to hear. No matter how vociferous you have been, you will always find someone who says, “Nobody told me!”

So what implication does this have for internal communications? Three strategies spring to mind:

1. Get sign off from staff to say they have received and understood information. At some stage you might need proof.

2. Take an iterative approach, so that key messages are repeated. Try delivering the same message through different channels, or presenting it differently, to prevent boredom setting in.

3. Make sure your strategy includes preparing people to receive information. Listening is often overlooked. Listen proactively, acknowledge emotions and ideas and receive feedback. Get staff actively involved and engaged to help them be receptive to your messages.

Communication can be about timing. Staff who are informed in advance are more likely to be excited and motivated than staff who find out about developments accidentally or through the media. It is not surprising that staff feel shocked or become angry if they find out about significant changes through a media announcement. They may feel they have lost face (which can be devastating, especially in some cultures). We all concede that there are many occasions when staff simply cannot be informed of everything. But what can you do to assist? One avenue may be to organize a staff briefing that occurs at the same time as a public announcement. You need to get your timing right, so you don’t make a bad situation worse by appearing to be insensitive or tardy.

When staff become aware of impending change, this is the time when leaks spring and the rumor mill fires up. When this happens, keep communication channels open, communicate up, down and across the lines of communication, and prepare managers well.

Effective communication is ongoing, two-way, and targeted. Brief is good. Don’t bog staff down with lengthy missives. They are busy enough with their work and dealing with the changes, without having to decipher complex, lengthy or irrelevant reports.

You can’t avoid the fact that sometimes you have bad news to communicate. If you have built up trust, communicate honestly and clearly, and have in place strategies to cope with staff reactions (loss, grief, dismay), then you and your staff are in the best position to deal with the situation in a productive and dignified way.

Keep communicating even when a change project is reaching its final stages. Make sure you see it through. Reinforcing new skills, practices or behaviors is a vital part of embedding the change. Don’t let staff revert back to the old ways by cutting the communications cord too soon.

Use the right communications channels

I found out my job was under threat by email!

As communications experts, you know how important it is to select the right communication channel. It is too easy to get so caught up in a busy project that you overlook some of the basics. So while planning your communications strategy, make sure you take time to select the right tool for the job.

Research shows that face to face communication is required if you really want staff to adopt new behaviors. Face to face is also the best channel for planning and dealing with sensitive issues. It allows you to gauge reactions, to get instant feedback and to ensure that everyone has received and understood the message.

You may not want to front up to people when you have to communicate bad news. But if you are honest and empathetic, and demonstrate that you are prepared to listen, to take note of feedback and to answer the hard questions, then you have delivered unpalatable news in the best possible way. They may not like the message, but they will respect you for fronting up.

Even if you are on a mission to save trees, don’t forget about paper. It is still best for complex and lengthy material. It is also very useful to support face to face and phone conversations.

The intranet is great for searching for and retrieving factual information. But take note, the intranet does not change behavior, you need the personal touch to do this.

Email, it is quick and convenient and overused. ‘Communicating change via email or voicemail is like ending a relationship that was – it’s just bad form. It leaves the recipient bewildered and angry, and whom ever is delivering the message looking very bad.’ (Veronica Apostolico, Ref 9). In addition, email is not always considered effective. A District Court ruling in Massachusetts on employee communications found against a company that communicated a change in procedure via email, because the message was not effectively communicated. If you do choose to convey important information via email, make sure you get some acknowledgment of receipt and understanding.

There are now so many channels to choose from, it’s a good idea to list the ones you have available, and then match the message to the channel. Using a variety of channels means that you can repeat messages, without looking as if you are hammering home a point (even if you are). It means that staff can’t ‘escape’ from what’s happening, or deny all knowledge.

There are other issues to consider when devising your communication strategy. What information needs to be pushed out to staff and what should staff ‘pull’ in? If you are pushing information, how can you be sure they have received it? And if you have provided information for staff to find and use as required, do you need to know how many ‘hits’ the information gets, so you can measure how much it is used?

Using project champions can be a powerful ploy. Project champions communicate really strongly by modeling behaviors, through conversing with staff, and demonstrating how proposed changes really work for your staff.

Use story telling to paint the picture

I just don’t see how that’ll work

‘… truly flexible, fully integrated, adaptable IT infrastructure using an SOA approach to develop modular, easily integrated and reused…blah blah blah…’ Does this mean anything to your staff, apart from those in IT?

How can you make this message sound exciting? Why not get them to visualize it and paint a picture instead? For example, ‘Just think after go-live, all you have to do is to click on the client contact, and from there you can complete all the transactions. You no longer have to open several applications, or photocopy documents, or scan in information. Our new system will do all that for you behind the scenes.’

Tell stories so staff can visualize outcomes. Many cultures prefer a narrative approach, rather that the abrupt, business-like approach that we often adopt. In everyday life, most people tell stories to get their point across, or illustrate their viewpoint by giving concrete examples.

Story telling is relevant to all stages of the change process. At the outset, encourage staff to visualize what the changes will look like. Then they can see exactly what needs to be done. Visualization is very powerful when it encapsulates a positive view of the future. This is especially useful when trying to get staff to move from ‘Could this work for me?” to ‘I can see how I can make this work for me.’

Building scenarios makes change seem possible and gets everyone past blinkered thinking. This is partly because many people are not comfortable with abstract ideas and theory. Making your project concrete makes it real, and making it real makes it happen. Creative visualization has long been recognized as an effective tool for planning and implementing change. So add it to your toolbox.

Make it easy for management to communicate effectively?

I don’t have time to see everyone.

Don’t ignore the people side of change. Change management is usually studied from a technical viewpoint. For example, how can the changes be implemented and what processes, procedures or approaches are required. Buzz words such as process re-engineering and corporate re-structuring appear to deny human involvement. But change affects staff and the effect on staff cannot be ignored. Managers need to hone their communications skills so they communicate with tact and diplomacy.

Work as a team and plan alliances that will help you smooth the path to change. Note that ‘data from 25,000 employees, in diverse industries, consistently rank front-line managers No 1 in credibility. Employees are also more comfortable speaking up with questions and ideas to their immediate manager than with any other management level’. If senior management does not have time to see everyone, maybe they should delegate some communications to their front line managers. Train managers to deliver the right message to their unique audience. Their role is to provide context around key messages in a way that suits their team’s style and emotions.

You may need to train managers to play an active role in planning and delivering messages about change initiatives. This training could include motivational techniques, team building, negotiation, delegation or dealing with conflict. Managers need to understand that resistance is part of the normal reaction to change. Anticipating this through proactive planning enables management to prepare their staff for change, so that they move quickly along the change curve, from Denial and Resistance, to Exploration, Hope and Commitment. Managers, who are movers and shakers in the change management process, may need a reminder that many staff need time to come to terms with change. Planning some ‘being patient’ time could save time in the long run.

Contrary to popular belief, management often find it very time-consuming to write reports to staff, or even if they find time, you, as internal communications, may feel that their language or approach makes their report inaccessible. Support them and make it easy for them. Having a variety of communication channels available is very helpful, especially if you select approaches and tools that make everything as quick and intuitive as possible.

If your CEO is not able to meet face to face to deliver a sensitive message, then maybe a video presentation would be an effective alternative for conveying the message. Staff will still be able to hear the emotion and see the passion. Good communicators can instill confidence and enthusiasm, and in so doing they still the rumor mill and quell unfounded anxieties.

If writing a report seems too formal or time-consuming, then consider submitting a short article in your company newsletter of magazine. A slightly less formal format may assist management to use a more ‘user-friendly’ and ‘human’ approach.

Success can be enhanced if managers play an active role in both planning and delivering messages about change initiatives.

Measure results, celebrate success

I am sure that we got the message across. But what did actually happen?

Measurement is critical in times of change and the best communication strategies involve measuring for effectiveness. It is important to understand whether messages are hitting the mark and to confirm that people are on the same page as you (or at least the page you expected them to be on).

Your first step is to list the desired outcomes of your change communications project, and decide how you will measure the success of each outcome. And do you have current data to use as a comparison?

You probably want to measure:

o Staff attitudes (to the project, to how well their managers get the message across)

o Staff emotions (where they are on the change curve?)

o Level of skill development or knowledge acquisition

o How well is your communications strategy working?

o Have messages been received, read and understood?

If you measure every step of the way, you can tweak messages and change tack when an approach is not working as well as it might. Regular surveys that give a snapshot of how people are feeling allow you to track the overall trend, otherwise it is easy to let your opinion of progress be colored by the ‘squeaky wheels’ in your organization;

You need to gather qualitative as well as quantitative data, and decide on effective ways to present and use the information. Proof of progress validates your planning, informs management and motivates staff.